DURANGO, Colorado (VN) — A little more than a year ago, Tejay van Garderen sat on the side of the bike path atop Vail Pass, cameras trained on his pained face. The BMC Racing youngster, then the team leader at HTC-Highroad, had ceded the overall lead at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge a day after taking control in Aspen.
“I was pretty emotional that day,” van Garderen said Saturday at the kickoff press conference for the second edition of the Colorado tour. “It was really hard to lose it.”
Van Garderen fell flat in the 16.1km time trial that started in Vail Village and finished atop the pass. He hasn’t done so since.
The Boulder, Colorado, resident came into 2012 with a new team and a new mindset. Riding at BMC alongside longtime friend Taylor Phinney, van Garderen took a new, more patient approach to racing and a more cautious approach to addressing the media.
In 2011, van Garderen came into the Amgen Tour of California talking about an overall win. He went too deep and cracked on the first uphill finish, at Sierra Road, finishing fifth at the end of the week. Three months later, after taking the leader’s jersey on a harrowing descent from Independence Pass to Aspen, van Garderen joked about having “more balls” than eventual Pro Challenge winner Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
“Tejay made a good point: you have to be able to descend well and climb well,” Leipheimer said after winning the Vail TT and taking back the jersey for good.
Flash forward a year and van Garderen enters the seven-day race fresh off winning the best young rider’s jersey at the Tour de France, towing Phinney, at just 22, to fourth place in the Olympic road race, and landing a string of big-time results in weeklong races through the spring.
“I have a lot of confidence coming out of the Tour. I showed I can be up there challenging with the best,” said van Garderen. “But a three-week tour is completely different from a one-week tour.”
This is true, and, as he said on Saturday, a bad day during a weeklong tour is harder to hide than during a grand tour. But van Garderen has shown himself capable at the former, logging seventh at the Volta ao Algarve, fifth at Paris-Nice and fourth at the Amgen Tour in 2012.
In July, van Garderen rode a support role for defending Tour champ Cadel Evans into fifth overall in Paris and the maillot blanc. He wouldn’t draw a line from that result to his potential in Colorado, despite the confidence boost it gave him.
“At the Tour, we had the defending champion, so I didn’t have the pressure,” he said.
That lack of pressure translated into two breakthrough time trial rides, in stages 9 and 19, where he finished fourth and seventh, respectively. Climbing with the GC favorites throughout the Pyrénées in the Tour’s final week, van Garderen landed on the final podium in Paris.
The Pro Challenge ends with a nearly pancake-flat 15.3km time trial in downtown Denver, and while Phinney is targeting a stage win in the capital, van Garderen hopes to lock in yellow. With teammate Johann Tschopp coming off the overall win at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and Evans back for his second Colorado tour, van Garderen can ride into his home tour without overwhelming weight on his shoulders.
“I’m hoping this year I can pull it together in that final time trial and take that jersey home,” he said.
It would be the first major stage race victory for van Garderen since turning pro in 2010 with High Road. Van Garderen is bullish on his chances in Colorado this week, but is also carrying the lessons he learned here 12 months ago.
“If I can get it at this race, it would be incredible,” he said. “The course suits me well, but some of the best riders in the world are coming. So it’s not going to be easy. But we have a strong team that is built for a couple of us to do well.”